On the beginning of World War II Franco’s Spain just went through the civil war that lasted long enough to drain country’s resources, so General Francisco Franco, though he supported Axis cause, was reluctant to bring Spain officially into the war conflict. But General Franco allowed number of volunteers to serve under German’s command, and, in the same time, he continued to maintain Spain’s neutrality. Shortly after the operation Barbarossa and invasion of the Russia, Joachim von Ribbentrop received Spanish offer for help, and also Adolf Hitler agreed with it.
At the beginning, only 4,000 men were required to be sent at the front lines, but the response was huge and soon the full division (around 19,000 soldiers in Spanish army) was formed. Volunteers, mostly Civil War veterans, were organized in Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Valencia and all other urban areas. The recruiting was officially closed on 2nd July 1941.
“Blue Division” (Legión Azul)
General Augustin Muñoz Grandes was appointed as the commander of freshly formed division. The question of the uniforms was particularly difficult. The Spanish army uniforms were not appropriate because of Spanish neutrality, so soldiers dressed blue Falangist shirts (from which derived division’s name), khaki trousers from Spanish Foreigh Legion, and the red beret borrowed from Carlist movement. The officers wore shirts in khaki colour with blue collar and cuffs. This was in a way official uniform, while on the front-line Spanish soldiers wore regular gray Heer uniforms, with the “España” tag with Spanish flag colours on upper right sleeve.
On July 13th the first train with volunteers left Madrid bound for Grafenwohr, Bavaria, where they became the Wehrmacht 250th Infantry Division with strength of 17,924 officers and men in four infantry regiments. As German divisions had three regiments, one of them was soon dispersed among the others leaving the 262nd (mainly Barcelona recruits), 263rd (Valencia) and 269th (Seville) regiments. Each regiment had three battalions of four companies. An artillery regiment (the 250th) consisting of three batteries of 150mm guns and one of 150mm guns was added to the division. Aviator volunteers formed a “Blue Squadron” (Escuadrillas Azules) which, using Bf 109s and FW 190s, was credited with 156 Soviet aircraft kills.
The Spanish Legion went through 5-week training in Bavaria and on 20th August 1941 left for the eastern front, first to reach Smolensk and be in the central group the attack on Moscow, they were rerouted north to Leningrad where they formed part of the German 16th army. The Spanish Legion saw its first action in the sector between Ilmen and the west bank of the Volkhov river and participated in a major offensive against Leningrad , four days later. They were to remain on the siege of Leningrad for the remainder of the division’s life, where they fought with distinction. In December 1942, General Emilio Esteban Infantes took command of the division.
The very cold winters and savage fighting inflicted heavy casualties among the Spanish volunteers, so much so that there were rumors that the entire division was going to collapse. Reinforcements were quickly organized in Madrid and new people sent to the front. Because of casualties, and a system of rotation, as many as 45,000 Spaniards fought on the Eastern front. Of these, 4,500 were killed in action and a 16,000 further were taken POW or wounded in action. The wounded men were treated on hospitals throughout German territory, which were operated mainly by Spanish Medical Staff. 286 captured volunteers were kept in Soviet captivity until 1954 when they returned to Spain on board the ship “Semiramis” supplied by the International Red Cross (2 April 1954).
As the end of the conflict was closer and closer, and the fortune turned against the Axis, Franco was under pressure to recall his troops on the front. Negotiations with the German government began in the spring of 1943, and the order to withdraw was given on October 10th, 1943. A “Blue Division” compromising 3,000 men was left behind, commanded by Colonel Navaro, and it was attached to 121st infantry Division. This appeased the Germans and those volunteers who did not want to abandon the struggle, but even this token force was ordered to withdraw in March, 1944.
After official withdrawing of the “Blue Division”, some of the volunteers refused to return home. They smuggled across the border to Lourdes, France, where they were picked up by the special unit and sent mainly to the Waffen SS. Two groups of Spaniards were sent to the Brandenburg unit for anti-Partisan action in Yugoslavia. One of these Brandenburg companies was sent in September of 1944 to Austria, where it became the Spanische-Freiwilligen-Kompanie der SS 101 and soon afterwards a second company (102) was formed. The 101 Company was attached to the 28th Waffen SS Division (Wallonien) and saw heavy action in Pomerania. In the end, the 101st was attached to the 11th SS Division Nordland and fought to the bitter end in the defense of Berlin. Waffen Haupsturmfuhrer der-SS Miguel Ezquerra commanded the 101st in the last days of Berlin. He survived the battle, and later escaped from Russian imprisonment to return to Spain.
The Spanish volunteers with their previous war experience and their fighting abilities were among the most successful foreign soldiers who fought for the Third Reich (Indians in Free Indian Legion, Muslims in 13th SS Gebirgs Division Handschar, Croats in Prinze Eugen division…). They proved themselves in battle continuously in one of the most brutal battlegrounds in military history, the Eastern Front. Even Hitler referred to the division as “equal to the best German ones”.
Many of the generals that took part in the attempted putsch on 23rd February 1981, on both sides of the conflict, had served in Hitler’s arm forces during World War II. Amongst them were generals Alfonso Armada and Jaime Milans del Bosch. Other “Blue Division” veterans, for example José Luis Aramburu Topete, at the time (1981) Director of the Guardia Civil, and José Gabeiras remained loyal to the legal democratic government under the young king Juan Carlos I.